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The Revival Of Anna May Wong In Pop Culture

Ryan Murphy's latest Netflix series, Hollywood, attempts to tell the tale of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. But could the show's ambitious representation of one of the most iconic actresses of all time be flawed too?

There’s been a mini-revival of late actress Anna May Wong (1905–1961) in popular culture recently. As the first Chinese-American star in Hollywood, Wong was a major character in the accomplished 2019 novel, Delayed Rays Of A Star, by Singapore writer Amanda Lee Koe. Then in January 2020, Google Doodle commemorated Wong by celebrating the 97th anniversary of The Toll Of The Sea, a groundbreaking 1922 silent film with Wong in the lead role.

This May, Netflix debuted a Ryan Murphy TV series titled Hollywood, which attempts to right the racist, sexist and homophobic wrongs of Hollywood’s past by reimagining it as a progressive town of the 1940s, that brings change to the rest of the US and the world.

Where in reality Wong was forced to play stereotypical roles of the “dragon lady” or the vulnerable “butterfly”, here Wong wins an Oscar for playing, in her own words, “a woman, a complex woman with a heart and soul” instead of “a yellow face or a caricature”.

The scene where Wong (played by Taiwanese-American actress Michelle Krusiec) stands on the podium receiving the Oscar is a moving one – even if this TV series is the stuff of fantasy and, to be frank, a hot mess of a fantasy.

Wong, who died of a heart attack at the age of 56, spent much of her career battling Hollywood executives’ narrow stereotypes of her. But in 1935, she faced the biggest humiliation of all when she screen-tested for the lead role of a Chinese farm wife in the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth. Despite impressing most executives in the room, the role went to Caucasian actress Luise Rainer instead, who used makeup to look Chinese and went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress. Murphy’s Hollywood depicts this incident in some heartbreaking detail, then puts Wong in the final episode clutching an Oscar as a fantasy mea culpa of sorts, a belated reclamation of a neglected legacy.

Ambitious but flawed 

But putting Wong’s story aside, the mini-series’ other attempts at rewriting Hollywood’s social injustices are not so straightforward. Hollywood wants to honour Hattie McDaniel too, the first African-American to win an Oscar for her role in Gone With The Wind (1940), but who then – like Wong – struggled to find roles that didn’t typecast her as, in her case, the maid.

The central premise of Hollywood imagines a young half-white, half-Filipino director Raymond (played by Darren Criss, who is himself Eurasian) who gets his first big break directing a major studio motion picture about the tragic life of real-life actress Peg Entwistle. But instead of casting a white actress in the role, Raymond wants to cast his black girlfriend Camille (Laura Harrier) instead.

Laura Harrier and Darren Criss out to change the system.

Camille is the only non-white young actress on contract at the studio. But though she is easily the most talented among her cohort, there is no precedent in Hollywood for a black woman headlining a movie. The studio worries about the negative press and audience reactions, particularly in the South where the theatres are likely to boycott such a film, substantially diminishing its box-office takings.

It is up to Raymond and his friends to convince the studio heads to change their minds, and in true Hollywood style, they do – triumphing at both the box-office and the Oscars. Raymond’s movie changes audiences’ perception for good, ushering many more films starring black actors. It is, in short, the equivalent of the real-life 2018 commercial and critical blockbuster Black Panther, the first film that convinced Hollywood execs that black-led movies can be as successful as any white-centric ones.

Rock reimagined

And that’s not all. Hollywood also revises the story of real-life matinee idol Rock Hudson, who in the 1950s had millions of women swooning, but by the 1960s had lost his star power, and in 1985 was outed as a gay man who had contracted AIDS.

In Murphy’s Hollywood, Rock (played by Jake Picking) is a young aspiring actor who falls in love with an African-American screenwriter and chooses to come out of the closet by kissing him at the Oscars. Instead of hiding in the closet, this Rock settles into a stable and loving relationship, and presumably lives happily ever after and doesn’t contract Aids.

Hollywood, which is co-created by Ian Brennan, is ostensibly about how life could have been for various fictitious and real-life denizens of Hollywood had studio executives greenlit movies that championed women as well as racial and sexual minorities. It is the ultimate Tinseltown fantasy, because it rewrites history to accommodate the kind of happy endings that, at least in Hollywood now, seem more commonplace.

Studio execs on Oscars night.

The problem with Hollywood isn’t so much as its reasons for addressing the sins of Hollywood’s past. It’s the fact that, as a piece of TV fiction, it just doesn’t pass muster. The first three episodes are terrific, showing us the glamorous side of studio-era Hollywood with household names such as George Cukor and Vivien Leigh dropping by now and then. It also shows us the seamier side of things, with high-ranking executives hiring prostitutes and rent-boys to satisfy their bedroom kinks.

But the second half of the series starts to falter when it begins to turn real-life bigotry into low-stakes threats that are quickly snubbed out. Camille gets a rude phone call when it’s publicly announced she’s headlining a film, so her studio boss sequesters her to a mansion with bodyguards. Camille is denied entry into the Oscar ballroom by the doorman because she’s black, but she simply tells the doorman she’ll scream “Fire” if he doesn’t let her in, so he does.

Considering how long and complicated these fights against social injustices are, Hollywood does a terrible job of distilling these decades-long struggles. Ingrained hatred and bigotry are summarily defeated with glib wisecracks and pat conclusions. A #MeToo subplot is quickly resolved when the sexual predator approaches his prey for forgiveness.

“Movies don’t just show us how the world is. They show us how the world can be,” says one character in an inspiring moment. Sure, they can. But they also have to be believable when they’re telling these stories – it wouldn’t work if the stories they’re telling are, in themselves, short of credible.

Hollywood is fun to watch for its period recreations of studio-era excess and glamour. But it needs better storytellers.

Photos Netflix

This article first appeared on The Business Times.